Tag Archive for 'world war two'

DRAFTED/Part Two Con’t

Part Two

One shiny suit takes my car keys. The other pokes me with a hairy finger.


They walk me down a dark, narrow ramp, bumping me back and forth between them. My legs buckle, my mouth goes dry. They breathe hard like they’re angry. I am sickened by the sour combo of coffee, cigarettes and Bay Rhum. Are they taking me somewhere for a beating? Or will I just get the hard smack to the back of the head I’ve seen shiny suits give guys outside Tony’s candy store on Tenth Avenue?

They knock on a steel door under a naked bulb.

“Artie, you in there…?”

From inside comes a hoarse grumble. “No, I’m ringside at the Copa.”

Another poke. “Get in there…” And they take a few steps back to make sure I enter.

It’s the embalming room. Only one table, we have four at Riverside. Our embalmers work with white coats, which are left unlaundered until they look like butchers’ aprons. The man I see squinting over a body, cigarette dangling between his lips, is wearing a frayed, gray sleeveless undershirt. He’s wiry and darkly tanned. Blood under his manicured fingernails, a gold watch rolled halfway up his tendoned arm over a tattoo of snakes and eagles and blurry letters…A pencil thin mustache, a pile of black hair, combed into a glistening pompadour.

The body has had a full autopsy –scalp peeled off to reveal the brain; skin parted along the chest cavity, from the stomach to the clavicle. He points derisively at the door. “Tough guys” he says. “They’ll split your skull with a two-by-four and eat a bowl of macaroni, but they won’t go near a deceased…”

There’s a body on a gurney in a corner. The toe tag says. “Gendelmen.”

“That must be yours,” Artie says. “We don’t get Jewish jobs.” He brushes his finger across his nose. ” Only the nice people get buried here, know what I mean?” And points to the body on the table. “Almost every job we get the cops order a full post mortem to make sure it wasn’t a homicide.”

He flips me a crumpled pack of Camels with traces of dried blood around the edges.

“Relax, you might be here for awhile. You got in the middle of a bad beef. Red Hook versus Bensonhurst.”

“But it’s only about fifteen bucks,” I say.

“Jurisdictional dispute,” he says. “Mangelli’s like a housefly on a pile of shit. He don’t know where to go first, you know what I mean?”

I don’t, but I nod anyway.

“He might be a big shot on President Street, but he’s nothin’ here, know what I mean? So now he gets caught with his hand in the wrong cookie jar. And now you’re the pawn in the game. Jungle drums are bangin’ as we speak. Everybody in Brooklyn knows what’s goin’ on and they’re watchin’ to see what he does. If he sends the fifteen bucks to bail you out it means he backed down. So now he’s callin’ people, you know important people, so they’ll call other important people to make Big John let you go.”

I light a Camel and try not to cough. Artie blows smoke through his nose without taking the cigarette out of his mouth. A long ash drops into the chest cavity of the body on the table.

“The big shots live for this kinda shit,” he says. “They got nothin’ better to do, but sit around watchin’ the money roll in. So now they’ll get all jazzed up talkin’ back and forth. They might even have a special sit down about it. Give ‘em an excuse to go eat spaghetti. Get treated like big shots at some joint downtown. This could take all night. “

Once, on my first day in a new school, three kids pushed me into a clothes closet, laughing as I thrashed desperately in the darkness. I have that same feeling now.

“How old are you kid?” Artie asks.


“Get your draft notice?”

“I gotta go for my physical.”

Artie scoops up a handful of viscera and drops it in a cellophane bag. “Don’t tell ‘em you worked in the business. They’ll put you in Graves Registration and you’ll never get out.”

A phone rings. He jabs an extension button and answers. Looks at me.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says.

He hangs up. “What was I talkin’ about?”

“Graves registration,” I say.

“Oh yeah, you wanna hear what happened to me?” He continues before I can answer. “It’s ’41, I’m lookin’ for pussy. I’m a smart guy, don’t shit where I eat. So I go to a dance outta the neighborhood in Prospect Hall. Pick up a little guinea broad, Caroline…Hot to trot, you can tell by the way they sock it into you when you’re dancin’. Coupla slow Foxtrots and we’re in the back seat of my brother’s Plymouth. Coupla months later three guys show up at my uncle’s place where I’m serving my apprenticeship—Sabbatino and Sons, ten funerals a year, he’s gonna make me a partner, I’m set for life…Caroline’s knocked up, they tell me. Not by me I say, I used a bag. Bang! they smack me. You callin’ my sister a hooer?”

Artie is talking fast in a whisper, as if he wants to get the story told before someone catches him.

“So my uncle brings me here to Big John— not this one, his father. Don’t worry, I know the family, he tells me. It’ll cost you a coupla dollars. And you oughta get outta the neighborhood for a while. Join the Army. By the time you come back everything will be blown over.

“You gotta do what these guys tellya so I enlist. They send me to Governor’s Island. I set up a morgue. It’s a picnic. I don’t even embalm, just ship bodies back to their home states. I’m home for Sunday dinner every week…

“Then guess what happens?” He smacks himself in the forehead. “Pearl Harbor. The war, you believe this? So guess what: they got plenty of guys to shoot rifles, plenty to type orders or drive trucks. But what they don’t have is enough undertakers to take care of the bodies that are pilin’ up all over the place.

“See, these generals, they’re like the big shots around here. They sit around drinkin’ highballs in the Officer’s Club for twenty years and all of a sudden there’s a war and they come up with ideas. Like now they gotta have a clean battlefield. It’s bad for morale to see bodies lyin’ around. And that means work for me…”

The phone rings again. Artie picks it up. “Yeah, yeah, okay.” He hangs up and lights a another Camel.

“I was in every theater, kid. Startin’ in Morocco where we had to dig bodies outta the sand…In combat you gotta bury guys where they fall…We’re duckin’ ordnance in the desert Messerschmitts doublin’ back to strafe the field…Then we went across to Sicily. General Bradley used to check to make sure the battlefield was clean, you believe that. We had to bury the Krauts, too…Some days we had to duck into the graves with the bodies when they counter-attacked…Gotta pick up the guy’s tags, plus any personal items he might have. Make a note of tattoos or scars or any identifying marks…That’s where I got the tattoo…See this? AFGRREG. Know what it stands for? Artie Fiore Graves Registration. So just in case they blew my head off they would know who I was and could send my wallet home to my mother…

“They sent us into England and we thought our war was over, see, after all that time in combat. Instead, we go over on D-day and hit the beach a few hours after the landing. Corpses floatin’ in the water—everywhere. We take fire but we get the beach cleaned hours after we hit. Did we get a medal, did we even get a commendation? Nothin’…See, they didn’t want to remind the homefront that people were dyin’ over there. They made these little films they showed in the theaters about every thing the Army did. But nothin’ about Graves Reg…”

The phone rings again.

“Yeah, yeah,” Artie says. “C’mon kid, that little prick Mangelli folded and sent the money.”

Artie puts a sheet over the body. He slips into a white-on-white shirt hanging over the door. Ties a fat Windsor knot in a shiny silver and green tie. “Take your body, kid.”

He guides me through a dark maze to the garage, lighting one Camel off another, talking even faster.

“’45, VE Day. War’s over right? But not for me. They keep us in to set up morgues in Japan for the Occupation. Then, in ’46 when I think I’m finally gonna get my discharge they come in with this shit detail: MacArthur wants to find the remains of the guys who died on the Bataan Death march. We been handpicked because we got so much experience. So we get rewarded with flies, and crud and fireshits for another three months. That’s what they do. They take the best guys and they run ‘em ragged. Like recyclin’ guys back to the front to break the rookies in. See, you can’t let ‘em know you’re good at anything…”

He watches as I horse the body bag into the back seat of station wagon.

“October ’46, I’m out. I had more than five years in. I come back here and they do me a big favor. Gimme a job in this joint. Same thing. They know I’m good so they abuse me. Let’s get your keys…”

In the office the big guy with glasses on his bald, yellow head, hands me an envelope.

“Give this invoice to Mr. Mangelli…”

A silver suit flips me the car keys. Another needles Artie.

“Hey fruitcake, where you goin’ all dressed up?”

Artie winks at me like he knew this was coming. “I’m goin’ to your mother’s house for dinner…” He waves the cellophane bag of guts in the guy’s face. “I’m bringin’ the tripa…”

The silver suit recoils. “You sick bastard. Get back in your hole…”

Artie laughs. “Everybody’s a tough guy…”

He turns to me.

“Remember what I tole you, kid. Don’t tell ‘em nothin. Don’t tell nobody nothin’.”






It’s September 1957 and World War II hasn’t ended. Every man I know is still reliving his time in the “service.” My Uncle Sammy was drafted at age 38 and spent four years ” talkin’ to the god damn goats” in the Galapagos Islands and running a laundry for the troops. My Uncle Willie flew sixty-seven missions as a tail gunner, way above the maximum twenty-five and was court martialed when he refused to go on the sixty-eighth. Now he can’t get a good job because of his dishonorable discharge.

My father had a good war. He graduated at the top of his Officer’s Candidate School class. As a combat engineer he won a commendation for building pontoon bridges ahead of the troops who were retaking the Philippines. Even had his picture taken with General Macarthur. Now he sells gravestones. He comes home smelling of whiskey and dozes before dinner in front of the TV. In the morning he stubs out his cigarette in the yoke of his fried egg and my mother dumps his plate in the sink. To this day I get queasy every time I see an order of “sunny side up.”

I’m fourteen and a half and I’m a careful thief. I take a quarter out of my mother’s change purse when it’s full, a cigarette out of my father’s pack of Pall Malls, but only when it’s freshly opened. I’m working at my first after school job–bicycle delivery boy at Bohack’s Supermarket on 7th. Avenue in Brooklyn. We’re paid the minimum wage, $1.00 an hour, plus tips. The store manager, Phil, is a neat little man in white shirt and tie. He wears a gold officer’s ID bracelet, engraved with his name, rank and serial number and spends most of his time laughing with the housewives. Dennis is the floor manager. He was in the first Marine wave to land on Tarawa and has an angry red trench in the side of his face where a Japanese bullet grazed his jaw, shattering his cheekbone and shearing off his ear lobe. He rolls his sleeve up over a Marine Corps tattoo of eagles and writhing snakes. (Tattoos are rare in those days and almost exclusively military.) He always has a cigarette in his bad ear. He butchers sides of beef first thing in the morning and wears his bloodstained white apron the rest of the day. He unloads the trucks, makes a change bank for the checkout clerks and stocks the shelves. Then he packs all the orders for the delivery boys. He staples the orders to the bags and when we come in he adds the perishables, milk, eggs, ice cream, sodas and beer, which everybody wants cold.

There are four of us. We work from 4 to closing. There are three new bikes with “Bohacks” painted in red on the sides of the bins. I’m the new kid and I go to a different high school so I get the old Schwinn. Dennis has welded a shopping cart basket onto its handle bars, making it completely unwieldy. With fifty pounds of groceries in the basket it’s almost impossible to handle. As I ride it fully loaded up the hill toward Prospect Park, items fall out of the bags and I have to stop, brace the bike and run down the hill to retrieve them. Once a dozen eggs falls out. I run into a small corner grocery and buy a replacement.

The other kids steal Milky Ways and Clark Bars off the shelves, but one day I see Dennis lurking behind the canned goods and I know he’s looking to catch somebody in the act. I notice that he doesn’t patrol the produce department so I take a banana off the bunch and stuff it in my school bag.

Dennis knows all the customers. He sells the good tippers to the boys, taking half of what they make. After my first week he slips me an order.

“This is a two dollar run, so you owe me a buck.”

Two dollars is an enormous tip. I climb four flights, carrying three bags full of cold cuts, Velveeta, Wonder Bread, Campbell’s pork and beans, Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti and meatballs, French’s Mustard, Miracle Whip, four quarts of Rheingold beer and a carton of Walter Raleigh cork tips. A jovial fat guy with a cigar answers the door. A woman in an embroidered Chinese bed jacket is watching TV. “Look at this kid, he weighs less than the groceries,” he says and gives me a crisp five dollar bill.

Dennis is waiting when I get back. “Where’s my end?”

I give him a dollar. He snaps it with his finger. “You little thief, I was testin’ you. That’s Jimmy Tully, the bookie. He’s always good for a fin. You should only owe me two fifty, but I’ll take the whole five to teach you a lesson.”

After that Dennis sends me to the dime tippers, the old ladies who make you bring the groceries into the kitchen and put them on the top shelves of the cabinets. He makes me stay late and mop the floors; flatten the cartons and tie them together with twine; stuff the garbage in black iron oil barrels and roll them out into the alley.

One Friday, he calls me into the meat locker. “You been a good soldier so I’m gonna give you a break.” He points through the frosty window, “See that broad?”

It’s a busty blonde in a low cut sleeveless yellow sweater green Capri pants and spiked heels. Dennis nudges me. “Looks like Jayne Mansfield, don’t she?”

I’ve been covertly eyeing her for weeks as she wiggles up and down the aisles and flirts with Phil. Sometimes I’ll walk by her just so I can get a quick sidelong look at her bra. She smiles as if she’s read my mind.

“She’s married to a fireman,” Dennis says,” but always comes in when he’s workin’ round the clock to give the all clear, know what I mean? I’ll send you over there for your last delivery in case you have to stay and give her a hand…”

I spend the next few hours overcome by fear and fantasy. At seven Dennis calls me over. “613 11th., basement apartment…Don’t say I never gave you nothin.’ “

The carton is loaded with cans and bottles. A light drizzle is falling through the dusk, the drops silhouetted in the streetlights. My hands skid off the rubber grips. My heart is pounding. I wheel the bike into the areaway and go into a gloomy alcove under the steps of the brownstone. No bell. I have to brace the carton against the wall and knock.

A man answers. So tall I can’t see his face over the door frame. Only his thick football neck. He’s wearing a gray undershirt and thick black woolen fireman pants.

“Whaddya want?”

“Grocery delivery,” I say in a quavering voice.

He steps out into alcove. His bald head glows like he’s a creature from outer space. Without taking his eyes off me he calls:

“You order groceries?”

A voice responds promptly. “No…”

“Sure you got the right address?” he says and before I can answer he finds a delivery order tucked in between the bottles. “Menino,” he reads. “703 President. That ain’t even close. How’d you get here?”

“This was the address they gave me,” I say.


I realize if I implicate Dennis he’ll deny it and I’ll be in more trouble. I’m stuck.

“I must have made a mistake,” I say.

“Yeah, you made a mistake.” He hits me in the forehead with the heel of his hand. I stagger. The back of my head hits the cobblestone wall. Somehow I manage to hold on to the carton.

He squeezes my neck so hard I think he’s going to choke me to death.

“If I ever catch you sneakin’ around here again you won’t have nothin’ to do with girls every again, you understand?”

My head is roaring. My hands shake so badly I can hardly get the carton back into the basket. A can of Del Monte peaches falls out. I run half way down the hill and catch it in the rainy gutter.

Now it’s raining hard. Mrs. Menino complains that her groceries are all wet.

Next day Dennis acts as if nothing happened. After a week he starts sending me to the better tippers. I make sure to give him half.

It’s been a long time, but I can still see the anguish on that fireman’s face.